Nothing is more important than family. You’ve heard this ethic repeated over and over. And if you watch the TV series “Succession” on HBO, you know that this is certainly an important family. However, with sick, elderly parents come questions not only about succession in family businesses but also questions about inheritance.
Regardless of how important the ethic of family may be among your relatives, there still remains the possibility of squabbling once a last will is read. Usually, these disputes are among brothers and sisters. And it doesn’t matter how strong these relationships were before the parent died.
Sibling disputes often erupt after a parent dies, and it’s time to divide up the assets of an estate, and these fights can result in lengthy and expensive legal actions. However, some proper forethought from parents can avoid such disputes, or they can be addressed by siblings who employ savvy strategies after a parent or both parents die. Consider the following to prevent or resolve conflict.
Estate-Planning Steps for Parents
Planning before death can address many of the issues that arise after a parent dies. Perhaps the most important action a parent can take is to have a will that specifies which sibling receives what in terms of property. Who inherits the house? A business? A valuable painting? The answers can be spelled out in a will.
Also, a parent can give directions that the house is sold and the proceeds divided evenly. If a parent wants to leave one sibling out of the will, this is legally permissible. There is no rule on disinheriting a child.1 However, to avoid legal challenges by a disinherited sibling, a parent should consider discussing the matter with the child or explaining the reason in the will.
A very good practice is to use a trust to specify property dispositions after death. A parent can make a revocable trust that can be changed at any time up to death, assuming the parent remains competent. Putting property in the joint name of a parent and child so that the asset passes automatically to the child when the parent dies is another way to avoid conflict. This can be done, for example, for a bank account, brokerage account, or real estate. Using a non-sibling executor or trustee for the estate can also help keep the peace. A third party who does not stand to gain from any decisions regarding property distributions may be a good idea, particularly if a parent believes there could be sibling disputes after they die.
Disputes over a treasured but valueless picture can cause bad feelings within the family, and those bad feelings can persist for a long time. A wise parent who anticipates that siblings may quibble over the household or other minor items after they die can take specific steps to thwart any problems.
Parents may want to disburse certain items before they die so that a child can enjoy the items longer—this avoids claims to them after the parent dies. This gifting strategy assumes that the value of the items is below the annual gift tax exclusion. In 2021, the annual exclusion is $15,000 and in 2022 it goes up to $16,000. This means that tax filers can give away up to $15,000 or $16,000 per person without paying tax on those gifts. Items of greater value require that a gift tax return be filed and may entail gift taxes.
It may sound odd, but putting tags on certain essential items, such as a lithograph or first edition book, can be helpful. The label should name the sibling who will inherit the thing after the parent dies. While the tag does not create a legal requirement that the sibling receives the item, it is indicative of the parent’s intent and may go a long way in avoiding sibling spats.
Lastly, a letter of instruction can be written by the parent outlining who gets what. Again, the letter is not legally binding but serves as a roadmap to the parent’s wishes regarding their property.
To avoid a lot of the nastiness we see on TV shows like “Succession,” follow some of these simple principles before your children wind up fighting with each other after your death. Probate can be an ugly thing and if you can avoid it, it will save everyone a lot of stress, anxiety and anger.